Interview: Carol Morley, ‘Mass hysterias tend to centre on the anxieties of their times’
The director of Dreams of a Life talks about her new film, The Falling, starring Maisie Williams
Best known thus far for the dynamic and thought-provoking documentary Dreams of a Life, which examined how a once-popular young woman could die alone and lie forgotten for years, writer / director Carol Morley is now making waves with new fiction film The Falling. An electrifying tonal mix with elements of horror movie, teen comedy and social realist family drama, The Falling follows an outbreak of bizarre symtoms at a girls’ school in 1969.
‘Mass hysterias tend to centre on the anxieties of their times,’ Morley explains, ‘So nowadays they’ll be about toxicity, food contamination, stuff like that. A lot of the 1960s ones were around sexual anxieties. I thought it would be really interesting to look at female adolescents of that time, coming of age and exploring sexuality – and that very heightened emotion that you get as a teenage girl. I also liked the idea of setting a teen movie before the time of mobile phones and texting – with more direct communication.’ A girls’ school suggested itself because 60% of reported outbreaks of unexplained mass illness of this kind occur in school – and overwhelmingly in all-female environments.
‘It does happen in army barracks and in boys’ schools,’ Morley says, ‘but 90% are among females. People say it’s because women communicate in a different way.’ The director has been moved and heartened, however, to see men respond as intensely as women to early screenings of the film. ‘I like that a lot of guys are connecting with it,’ she says. ‘They’re intrigued, perhaps because it’s stuff that hasn’t really been represented about young female psychology.’
In accessing that mysterious realm, Morley turned to her own memories of adolescence, but also benefited from the contributions of her young cast. The central role of Lydia, a sharp-tongued, charismatic girl with a bleak home life, is played by Maisie Williams, known for her part in Game of Thrones. Newcomer Florence Pugh plays her dreamy, precociously alluring friend Abbie. ‘I looked for people who could tell a story and engage you,’ Morley says of her audition process. ‘I brought in objects and had them tell stories about them; I did group workshops with them. And they were so open… they didn’t find any of it embarrassing. I think I would have!’
Among the older cast, both Maxine Peake and Greta Scaachi play scorchingly against type: Peake as Lydia’s edgy and reclusive mother, Scaachi as a battleaxe teacher hellbent on spoiling fun. ‘I asked Greta not to interact with the girls because I wanted them to be scared of her,’ Morley laughs, ‘but she loved them. She was always telling them how beautiful they were and giving them advice on acting.’ Peake, too, was encouraged to quell her natural ebullience. ‘Normally she’s so expressive, and I just wanted her to shut down.’
Other collaborators came to Morley by endearingly haphazard means. Cinematographer Agnes Godard, known for her work with Clair Denis, came on board after Morley sourced her email address through a Google search. Tracy Thorn provided original songs after Morley had a dream about her doing so, and made an approach via Twitter. Such spontaneity has aided in the creation of a film that feels at once orchestrated and organic; precise and strangely wild – just like the environment it portrays.
For Morley, boldness has paid off in helping the film to become what she wanted it to be. ‘If you get very afraid,’ she says, ‘then you close down. But if you’re open to things, then you encourage something to happen – and you encourage everybody involved to feel that they’re really part of something.’
The Falling is on general release from Fri 24 Apr.